I recently attended a lecture on the ‘no dig’ system of gardening. Held in a modest village
hall in Devon the room was packed with gardeners and allotment-holders eager to
revolutionise their approach to gardening. Through a side door, a tantalising glimpse of
home-made cakes and pots of tea might have tempted the bored or hungry. However, our
speaker, Charles Dowding, was no mere theorist, but Britain’s foremost proponent and
practitioner of the no-dig method.
With his angular, tree-like frame poised upon the stage beside a giant screen, he
orchestrated his slideshow to an illuminating commentary, the fruit of over 35 years of
experience in productive market gardening. He is clearly both artist and scientist. As an
artist, he works with the medium of soil and seasons to create a changing mosaic of edible
abundance and colour. As a scientist he has developed repeatable methods of production
employing nature’s deepest principles of economy.
Time ran on and as the talk came to an end our questions, sprouting like weed shoots in
Spring, had to be cut short. People congregated to the front around the speaker and the
table of his books. Behind, a line of plump overwintered vegetables,squashes, parsnips,
beetroots, perching along the edge of the stage silently proclaiming the success of the
system – colourful talismans of reassurance. The tearoom beckoned.
‘No dig’ means just that; no rotovation and no slicing through the soil with spade or fork and
no strenuous turning and breaking of heavy clods to prepare the ground for sowing.
No chemicals are used here either because the system uses natural methods of both
fertilisation, and weed or pest control. The no dig approach is essentially in accord with the
broad principles of ‘Permaculture’ – a sustainable approach to growing that uses very few
The fundamental premise of the no dig system is that the soil is a living, intelligent universe
in itself, designed by nature to support plant growth when cared for properly and left
undisturbed by digging or ploughing. The advantages of no dig are:
Less work for more production and satisfaction: Less interference with, and more
participation in nature’s own methods.
Fertilisation from the top down: Two inches of compost mulch applied annually on top of
the soil (where it would naturally be found in nature) puts back the nutrients that the crops
Using nature’s workforce: Worms, which thrive abundantly in the no dig environment, do
the work of carrying nutrients from the surface deep into the soil, creating air passages in the
soil as they do so.
Using the intelligence of the soil: The ‘soil food web’ comprised of fungal threads,
beneficial soil bacteria, other micro-organisms, and creatures higher up the food chain
including worms, remains undisturbed, maximising its capacity to convert and transport
nutrients within the soil. This retains the integrity of the soil structure and regulates soil
moisture content. The need for watering is greatly reduced.
Fewer weeds: Weed seeds are not brought up to the surface by digging. A compost mulch
on the soil surface further discourages weed growth.
Earlier crops: Surface mulches and undisturbed soil structure help to retain warmth in the
soil during the winter months encouraging plant growth earlier in the year.
Continuous sowing/planting: As soon as one crop is removed another can be sown or
planted in the same bed without soil preparation other than clearing the surface debris of the
previous crop. In many cases the roots can be left in the soil. As they decompose, they open
channels in the soil for new plant roots to colonise. Two crops a year are often possible. Also
crops can be inter-planted so that as one comes to an end, another is growing alongside it.
This strategy also out-competes weeds because the soil is always supporting a crop.
Establishing the no-dig garden:
Using his own experience as an example, our speaker outlined the practical steps for
establishing the no dig garden. In November 2012 he started his present and fourth market
garden. At that time it was an overgrown field with the remains of concrete slabs and sheds
which 50 years before had been a nursery. Before being able to generate home-made
compost, he imported a few tons of council-made compost from recycled green waste.
Having dug out the woody weeds such as brambles, he used cardboard covered with
wood-chip as a mulch to kill weeds on the pathways between beds. The beds themselves
followed two patterns: One was simply to cover the grass with 6 inches of compost and plant
straight into it. The other was to put 2-4 inches of compost straight onto the grass covered
with a further light-proof mulch of plastic sheeting. This was then punctured to plant squash
plants or potatoes straight into the compost.
After four months or so the crops were ready for harvest and after six months the plastic
cover could be removed leaving a weed-free bed ready for planting or sowing, (my one
reservation was the plastic sheeting, which although quick and effective eventually goes to
landfill. Perhaps compostable cardboard could be used instead, covered with a further layer
of compost on top to hold it in place).
The principle of no dig was persuasively demonstrated throughout the talk. Then there were
the spontaneous asides that would prompt a flurry of note-taking on the backs of envelopes
or old supermarket receipts – whatever could be dredged from the recesses of a pocket in
time to catch the idea. These random pickings included:
Slug problems – reduce habitat : Raised beds do not necessarily need sides which provide
slug habitats, but can simply be mounded. Mulching with compost instead of straw or woody
material is less hospitable to slugs and more suited to wet climates like ours (wood-chip on
paths can be put on beds as mulch after 2 – 3 years when rotted down). Bring plants on in
pots where possible. Keep the growing area tidy and transplant seedlings when mature
enough and easier to protect.
Sow towards full moon not after.
Copper tools: Their use was first inspired by the Austrian visionary, forester and hydrologist
Victor Schauberger. Beautifully made, converts say they do something special to the soil and
also deter slugs.
Persistent weeds such as couch grass and bindweed: Weaken the parent root by digging
down and removing where possible. Mulch will do the rest.
Visit the garden daily : “Gardeners are natural multi-taskers”. Short periods in the garden
regularly are better than long periods once in a while. Attend to weeds when young or lightly
hoe. Carry a compost bucket as you go for weeds and trimmings for the compst heap.
Salad leaves: These should be picked by hand, not cut with a knife.
Insects: Years ago when driving down a country road at evening time the windscreen would
become covered with insects. Now there are none. Be aware.
I ventured to ask his opinion on ‘biochar’ about which I have written several blogs. He said
he was ‘unconvinced’ (obviously about the many claims for its virtues) but conceded that it
could be a useful soil amendment. Having made an abundance of biochar last autumn from
extinguished bonfire cinders, which were then sieved and put through the garden shredder,
I have added liberal amounts to the compost mulch on my no dig beds. One great pleasure
of gardening is the accumulation of knowledge as time passes. I wait to see what the benefits
I came away from the lecture with a Charles Dowding 2017 Diary . Packed with photographs
and useful information, It is probably all you would need to get going on a no dig garden. On
the last page I found this quote: “It is a pleasure to offer this compendium of advice, based
on my decades of growing food and flowers. The plants keep telling me more, my methods
evolve, and a common factor is soil health.”
www.charlesdowding.co.uk – See Charles Dowding videos on youtube
Wood-chip – Local tree surgeons are often looking for places to drop wood-chip for free.
Copper gardening tools: www.implementations.co.uk
By our Sustainable Blogger – Henry Brighouse